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In a sentence where we have two listed words that are hyphenated, we can omit the latter part of the first compound and still be grammatically correct:

I don't believe we will ever find helium-based or hydrogen-based life forms.

I don't believe we will ever find helium- or hydrogen-based life forms.

However, if we have two (related) words which both end in the same suffix, can we still apply this notation? I've seen this used before, but I'm not sure it's proper:

It doesn't matter whether the character is a protagonist or antagonist.

It doesn't matter whether the character is a pro- or antagonist.

More often than in writing, I hear this in spoken conversation, usually with an emphasis on the prefixes (i.e. "... a pro- or antagonist ..."), as though there is actually a hyphen in both words.

I've read up a small bit on conjugation reduction here (thanks to search actually finding that term for me), but it doesn't seem to answer this particular question.

Is the reduction of non-hyphenated words allowed within English grammatical rules?

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It does make sense to say so in your first example:

I don't believe we will ever find helium-based or hydrogen-based life forms. (i)

I don't believe we will ever find helium- or hydrogen-based life forms.

In this case, you are using a word with a hyphen in the sentence (i). In your second example, though

It doesn't matter whether the character is a protagonist or antagonist. (I)

It doesn't matter whether the character is a pro- or antagonist.

Does not work, since there is no hyphen before "agonist" in (I). Summarizing, you can say that if you are using a word with a hyphen in the sentence, then you could combine words with a single hyphen, but if you are not using a word with a hyphen, then the combination of words with a single hyphen is grammatically incorrect.

Source

Patrick Hanks: Conventionality and Efficiency in Written English: the Hyphen. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p24-28

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    Hi, Sanath, and welcome to EL&U. If you have links to your sources, would you be so kind as to provide them? It would be nice to have sources, which improves the content of answers. – anongoodnurse Jan 24 '14 at 1:59
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    @Susan: Thanks for the kind welcome! I used as my source "Patrick Hanks: Conventionality and Efficiency in Written English: the Hyphen. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p24-28". – user63241 Jan 24 '14 at 2:03
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    The ‘implied hyphen’ is before agonist, not tagonist. That's the main reason it doesn't work: you'd have to write prot- or antagonist, which seems bizarre. There's nothing wrong with pre- or postdate or with in- or circumfix, though, because the prefixes there are clearly separable and distinct, and the resulting hyphenated prefix exists as a morpheme as is (unlike prot-, which is at best an unproductive allomorph).. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 24 '14 at 2:25
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: That's true. Thanks for your comment. I shall edit my answer. – user63241 Jan 24 '14 at 2:37

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